Mountains Full of Moonshiners
by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.
The preparation and selling of homemade liquor was a routine occupation in rural Virginia from its earliest settlement. Before 1916, when Prohibition went into effect throughout the commonwealth, the locals' competition came from legal distilleries. Afterward, the competition was the law, even after federal Prohibition was repealed in 1933. You could make homemade brew and give it away, but you couldn't sell it.
If you did, the business became known as bootlegging, after the Old World custom of hiding a bottle or flask of liquor in one's boot, or moonshining, as some concocted their brew on moonlit nights.
With clear springs, numerous apple and peach orchards and a sparse population in the backcountry, the Virginia Piedmont and lower Shenandoah Valley proved hospitable for bootlegging well into the 1950s. A few home distillers plied their product into the 1970s.
Most in the area had their stills on the Blue Ridge, Short Hill or Bull Run mountains. But there were notable exceptions, among them Earl Batt of lower Loudoun County. He had his still on Tenfoot Island in the middle of the Potomac River. The island was in Maryland, but Batt wasn't usually bothered by the Montgomery County sheriff: The law would have to come 35 miles from Rockville, via Chain Bridge.
Batt would run the whiskey in a powerboat to the Virginia shore, a few hundred feet west of where Potomac View Road hit the river. He sold half-gallon jars of whiskey for $3 apiece.
Whenever Batt heard that the Montgomery County sheriff might have a warrant delivered to Virginia authorities, he would dismantle the still, haul it into a powerboat and sequester the apparatus. Then he would revert to his legal occupation -- he was a stonemason, specializing in chimneys.
During the 1930s, Batt bought his coarse brown sugar at George Page's Sterling Supply. Page, like other country storekeepers, always kept a good supply of coarse brown sugar and yeast on hand. Revenue agents would sometimes tail the trucks hauling confectionaries and would keep an eye on the store.
Fred Franklin Tavenner, who farmed in the Sterling area in the 1930s, told me some years ago that Batt "was the mainstay of all of them. He'd have these fellows make this whiskey -- Elmer Johnson, Ralph Cochran, Curtis Jenkins -- little kin, not too much." Batt "would handle it for them and sell it for about $2 a pint. I'd get up in the morning, go down to the cows, and see these stills. . . . We had one on a farm we rented and didn't even know it. They moved 'em around all the time. They'd have a back way of getting to them."
A favorite location for selling the bootleg was the Broad Run Tollhouse, still standing west of the run and on the south side of Route 7. Before the tolls were removed in 1924, every motor vehicle and wagon crossing the bridge had to stop by the stone building. Amos Jenkins, Curtis Jenkins's uncle, farmed the land about the pike and partnered in the selling of whiskey with Lertie Holsinger. Again the price was $2 a pint and $8 to $9 a gallon. Roger Powell, a raconteur of eastern Loudoun, told me a few years ago that the brew "was real hot stuff."
In the early 1920s, the partners got into an argument over sales territory, and Holsinger pulled a .22 on Jenkins and killed him. The tollhouse became off-limits for sales, but only for a few years. Another fatal shooting took place in 1923 on the forested backland of Belmont Plantation in Ashburn. Morris Poole and Ed Ball had set up a still there and hired a man Powell called Mr. C. to guard the operation with a .25-caliber pistol.
Jay Lambert, Leesburg's IRS agent, heard about the still and set out to bust the enterprise. Powell related the story to me: "A craps game was going on in the midst of the mash barrels, arranged in a circle in the middle of a briar patch. 'Wouldn't Lambert like to see this,' Mr. C. said. Now Lambert couldn't hit the side of a barn, and as was his custom, he burst onto the scene, firing his pistol into the air. Mr. C. killed him with one shot."
A second federal officer was killed in a liquor raid in 1935. "Old Man" Quesenberry ran a still on the right bank of Goose Creek in the bottoms of Courtland Farm, between Evergreen Mills Road and Route 15. Approached by a force of revenue agents, Quesenberry, who had one blind eye, picked off one "at a distance of a quarter of a mile," claimed the Loudoun Times-Mirror. The other agents caught Quesenberry, but he never divulged the location of the still. To quote the newspaper quoting Quesenberry, "I made good liquor and sold all right here in Loudoun. . . . I don't mind telling about myself, but I ain't going to tell nobody who is mixed up in this liquor business."
At a summer trial in Leesburg, Judge J.R.H. Alexander asked Quesenberry how he became such a good shot. Quesenberry told him that when he was young, his daddy gave him a .22-caliber rifle, and when he brought down a squirrel that wasn't shot between the eyes, his daddy gave him a licking.
Quesenberry, who had served 10 years for killing two men in Wisconsin, got 27 years.
One of the last of Loudoun's bootleggers was Jess Tomblin, who lived in a sawmill shanty up in the hollow, on the Blue Ridge above Bluemont. Martin Mitchell, who came to the village as a toddler in the early 1930s, told me recently that Tomblin made corn whiskey and apple brandy. Both brews incapacitated enough local men that their wives complained to Alexander, the judge. But he, too, was a customer of Tomblin's, so before Alexander sent the sheriff up to raid the still, the judge warned Tomblin to have only a few gallons on hand. The fine would then be only $10 or so, and Tomblin could continue in business, which he did through the early 1940s.
In Fauquier County, along the slopes of the Blue Ridge and its easterly knobs, Calvin Deavers sold his homemade peach brandy into the 1960s and ran a traveling concession at the Charles Town race tracks. Henry C. Green, Deavers's employer at Hartland Orchard near Markham, told me a few weeks ago that on race nights Deavers would go to Charles Town wearing baggy overalls with two huge front pockets. In each pocket would be a half-gallon Mason jar with a tube sticking out. Deavers would charge 50 cents for two sips. Then he'd pinch the tube.
So as not to attract attention, many mountain moonshiners got their fruit from out-of-the-way orchards and set up nearby.
William Stribling of Stribling Orchards at Mountain View, near Markham, told me recently that a Mr. S. distilled a high-quality corn-and-grain whiskey, "a close kin to strong vodka. He was so blatant with it, that his wife would serve you samples in their kitchen." The still was in the remote, old Sherwood Orchard on the slope of Hardscrabble Mountain, not far from Fiery Run Road.
After an argument, one of his customers turned him in to authorities, but "by the time [Mr. S.] got to Warrenton," Stribling told me, "the wheels had already turned, and he was released after spending only a couple of hours in jail." When Mr. S.'s customers heard he had been arrested, they were quick to get to his house and buy up the remaining inventory for fear he wouldn't be back in business.
"He gave us a gallon of moonshine as a wedding present in '61," Stribling said. He and his wife, Ann, used it in a punch at their reception.
Copyright © Eugene Scheel